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Collecting Antique Clocks William Monk - an early rural clockmaker. by Brian Loomes

William Monk was an early rural clockmaker working at Berwick St. John in Wiltshire, in older records sometimes written as Barwick and even Barrick. Country clockmakers at this time had to be versatile and were often blacksmiths too, making and maintaining all kind of metalwork. In fact in old records William Monk is sometimes described as a blacksmith, sometimes a clockmaker, and in his will made in 1753 he himself referred to his pursuit of both trades - 'unto my nephew, William Monk, all my working tools as blacksmith and clockmaker'.

Some made guns at this period too, for the first rural clockmaking generation to work in each county could not make a living from clockmaking alone. We can only guess at the type of work, which occupied most of his time, as we have no diary or daybook to go by. What we do know from such records is that the average country clockmaker spent more of his time in cleaning, servicing and mending clocks, watches, roasting jacks and all manner of metal objects from spectacles to carriage springs, than he spent making clocks. If it was made of metal, the 'clocksmith' could fix it. William Monk is typical of that first generation of rural blacksmith-clockmakers, though he was perhaps more successful than most. What applied to him applied to clocksmiths nationwide.

We know that a clockmaker could make one clock a fortnight, if he could get orders for so many. But rural farm workers could not raise the price of a clock, and those who farmed their own land and might be able to raise the required sum, had little need of one. A farmer rose with the sun and slept when it was dark. The task of trying to sell a clock in the early eighteenth century to rural families who had survived for countless generations without one, must have been a struggle, to say the least. Some clockmakers even ran what they called 'clock clubs', which were an early form of monthly hire purchase, to help the poorer customers spread out the cost. These factors must lie behind such a clockmaker's variety of product and method of production. He had to bend with the will of the client, to make what his customer wanted rather than what he personally would have preferred, and above all he had to make it as cheaply as possible.

William Monk was baptised in the village church of Berwick St. John in 1689 and worked there all his life, though occasionally he is referred to as 'of Donhead' a neighbouring village two or three miles away. Perhaps he lived part way between the two. The road between the two villages is crossed by the main road from Salisbury to Shaftesbury (today the A30) , and blacksmiths traditionally sited themselves on a main coaching road to pick up passing trade. I'll bet that's where he lived, right at the cross roads, where he could get the best of both travelling worlds. He would have been apprenticed about 1703 at the customary age of fourteen, probably for the usual term of seven years, which would have ended in 1710. It is not know who taught him, but there were not many clockmakers in this locality at that time and the likeliest seems to me to have been James Delaunce.

James Delaunce was another early maverick clockmaker, constantly experimenting with different techniques in a manner typical of these first rural craftsmen. Some of his longcase clocks are known with a solid escape wheel (on his anchor escapement movements) instead of the normal spoked wheel used by all other clockmakers in the land. A spoked wheel may have looked prettier, but a solid wheel was stronger, and this may be the reason he chose it. In fact an anchor escapement longcase clock is known by Delaunce dated 1675 and is probably the oldest dated example known of such an escapement by any provincial maker. Delaunce knew what he was doing and no doubt dated it to commemorate such an early innovation.

Lantern clock of about 1710 signed 'Wm. Monke fecit'
1. Lantern clock of about 1710 signed 'Wm. Monke fecit', with original verge escapement. Original brass hand. Pillars not of the integral type. Click for closer view.

There is some uncertainly where Delaunce worked at the time of Monk's apprenticeship, as he was initially at Frome and later at Downton, about fifteen miles east of Berwick. Delaunce's work has an unusual and very distinctive feature in that his thirty-hour clocks (some of them, anyway) have four spikes pointing downwards to the seatboard, a feature found in the work of only two or three makers, including some of, but not all of, the thirty-hour clocks by William Monk.

Why would James Delaunce, or anyone for that matter, put spiky feet under his thirty-hour longcase clock movements - and why would Monk copy him? Well, lantern clocks hung from a hook in the wall by an iron hoop and had two spikes or spurs at the lower back. These spikes served as a brace to hold the clock at the correct (vertical) distance off the wall and also to stop the clock slewing round to one side during winding by virtue of their grip. Most thirty-hour clocks sat loosely on a wooden support board in the case and, as they were wound by pulling a rope, they could be prone to sliding to one side during winding, which would result in their being pulled off balance and therefore refusing to run.

The 'spiky feet' invention must have been James Delaunce's attempt at making the clock slide-proof during winding. The spikes bit into the seatboard for a safe grip, just as the spikes on a lantern clock bit into the wall. So why not put a spike under an eight-day longcase clock movement too? Well, an eight-day was traditionally bolted down to its seatboard and so could not slip during winding. Delaunce was improvising and inventing, just as all early rural clockmakers had to, to cope with the circumstances of his trade. Such innovation is typical of early rural clocksmiths. If Monk did not train under Delaunce, he certainly picked up this uniquely-odd 'spiky feet' feature from Delaunce's work. An eccentric practice perhaps, but it worked.

By 1718 we know William Monk was well established in his own business, for in that year he took his first apprentice of a total of eight that we know about. These were: 1718 William Morgan from Handley, Dorset; 1718 William Godwin from Handley, Dorset; 1724 Roger Best from Tollard, Wiltshire; 1730 John Flewell; 1730 Thomas Hunt; 1743 John Hewell; 1745 Richard Reynolds; 1753 William Goodfellow. Thomas Hunt and William Goodfellow were bound as blacksmiths, the rest as clockmakers, and it is unclear whether this means they were to learn only that particular aspect of the trade, or whether the term was used indiscriminately to describe a master who followed both trades.

William was married in February 1721 to Deborah James, who died tragically only two months later, in April. He was married for the second time in November of 1725 at Wimborne St. Giles to Deborah Ainsworth, who bore his only child to survive infancy, a daughter named Hannah, born in 1727. Deborah herself died in 1732, leaving William a widower for the second time within eleven years but this time he had a five-year-old daughter to raise. He married for the third time in 1735 at Iwerne Minster in Dorset to Ann Adams, who gave birth to a son, William, but he survived barely a year.

William's personal life was marred by repeated tragedy, though he himself lived on till 1753, when he died in his 64th year. With no male heir to continue the business, it ended with his death.

He left property to his brother, James, who lived at nearby Handley, across the border in Dorset. One old report says that James ran the blacksmith's shop underneath William's clockmaking shop. It is not know whether this is true, but by the time of William's death in 1753, James had moved to Handley. The making of turret clocks involved a good deal of blacksmith work, so perhaps James assisted in this aspect.

A good many details about William Monk's life and work were published in 1981 in Tom Tribe & Philip Whatmoor's book, 'Dorset Clocks & Clockmakers' (Berwick is not actually in Dorset but is in Wiltshire, close to the close to the Dorset border), and again in 1986 in Michael Snell's book, 'Clocks & Clockmakers of Salisbury', though new facts and aspects keep emerging. One opinion expressed by Whatmoor and Tribe is that he may have trained under Joseph Gray of Shaftesbury, whose lantern clocks have some similarities to those by Monk. Shaftesbury is only about four miles to the west of Berwick. On the other hand the spiked feet below his thirty-hour longcase movements are an oddity of James Delaunce's work and not, so far as I know, of Joseph Gray's.

Movement of the verge lantern clock by William Monke
2. Movement of the verge lantern clock by William Monke seen from the right-hand side. The short (verge) pendulum can be seen swinging just inside the backplate. Click for closer view.

The evidence is inconclusive as William Monk's work is quite varied and some of his lantern clocks have nothing in common with Gray's, and some of his thirty-hour longcase clocks nothing in common with Delaunce's! In the end it is unreasonable for us to expect a clockmaker to have picked up certain idiosyncracies of work practice early in his life and to have followed them unfailingly for forty years. A few did that, and must have died of boredom! Tribe and Whatmoor comment that 'it is remarkable that all his many movements appear to be individually made'. They should know as they worked as clock restorers in Dorset for many years. In other words Monk's work shows the variety we would expect from a master, rather the clones we might expect from a slave.

And so too was variety an essential aspect of the work of almost all early rural clocksmiths, experimenting as they went along to find the system that worked best for them. The majority of clockmakers would keep on trying new methods, new styles, new suppliers, different engravers - the latter probably accounts for the varied spellings of Monk(e) and Berwick. It is possible that William Monk himself could not write. Surprising as it may sound, that was the case with a good many clockmakers, who could measure and perform calculations for clock gearing, but could not write. His will is signed with his mark, though that may be no more than an indication of infirmity. He made his will on 24th July and died on 27th August, which does hint at his being seriously ill when he signed. If he was unable to read and write that would explain why he (or the various engravers who worked for him over the years) lapsed into such varied spellings, especially of Berwick.

Whatmoor and Tribe suggest that 'all' William Monk's lantern clocks and eight-day longcase clocks are signed 'William Monk Fecit' without any placename and 'are of superb quality'. It is always dangerous to be so positive, and we now know several such clocks which are not signed this way. Signatures noted from his various clocks include: 'William Monk', 'Wm. Monk Fecit', 'Wm. Monke fecit', 'Wm. Monk Barwick', 'Wm. Monk Barwick St. John', 'Wm. Monk Barrick St. John', 'W. Monk Barwick St. John', 'Wm. Monk Barwick St. Johns'. In fact it is hard to find two consecutive clocks signed in the same way!

Monk's most numerous clocks are thirty-hour brass dial examples, both one-handers and two-handers. William Monk made many church clocks too, and repaired a great many more. Some of these, though not all apparently, carry tulip finials, a flourish he often performed as a kind of trade mark.

I know of only four lantern clocks by William Monk. Whatmoor and Tribe wrote as if they knew of more. One is a quarter-chiming example on four bells sold at Sothebys in 1980; one is a spring-drive conversion I sold some years ago (plate 1); one with an anchor escapement was sold at Bonhams in London in 2005; one is the one pictured here (plate 2) with original verge escapement. Two of his lantern clocks have the pillars cast integrally with the finials and feet in a manner we associate typically with the West Country. James Gray of Shaftesbury did this before Monk was born. So did James Delaunce on some of his clocks, but not on others! Yet the other two lantern clocks known by Monk have normal lantern pillars with screw-on finials and feet, just as some of James Delaunce's do. Two of William Monk's lantern clocks are very similar to each other. The other two are very different both from these two and from each other. Two have the West Country lion and unicorn fret holding a shield, a pattern introduced in about 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy and often bearing the Royal coat of arms. It is thought this was an expression of loyalty to the crown and a response to the fact that Oliver Cromwell had ordered all parish churches to remove the Royal Arms in 1650. This fret continued in use for many years after 1660, perhaps till the 1720s or later. One such fret on a Monk lantern clock carries the name of the first owner, crudely engraved at its base 'Rich bush his clock'. This was the old-fashioned way of writing the possessive form before the use of an apostrophe - meaning 'Richard Bush's clock'. Three have the original (single) hand made of brass, as was regular West Country practice and was also done by Gray and Delaunce - in most other locations lantern clocks had hands made of iron. The fourth has replaced hands.

It is impossible to devise any rules or formulae for his clocks. Just as we think we have spotted a common element, the next clock proves to be quite different. But that is probably to be expected from what we already know about a clockmaker engaging in variety. His clocks are interesting survivals from an age which saw the very beginning of rural clockmaking.

First published in Antique Collecting.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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